The aerial photo tells it all: A group of starry-eyed Central Alberta band kids, their chests puffed out in pride, are marching through the streets of San Francisco.
Former Red Deer Royal Michelle Bakke-Purnell was only 16 at the time the photo was taken during a July 4 parade in 1984, but she still remembers the euphoric moment like it was yesterday.
“We were just so proud to be representing Canada that we all walked in perfectly straight lines, we were all in perfect step, and there was just this feeling that we had, of being in that parade, with people along the sides cheering on Canada. It was incredible.”
Bakke-Purnell organized the 40th anniversary reunion of the Red Deer Royals this weekend because she believes her youthful years with the award-winning marching band were some of the best of her life. “It sounds like I’m over-dramatizing, but it was a wonderful lifestyle,” she said, calling her six formative years with the Royals “a life-changing process.”
The same tour to San Francisco also took the Royals to Disneyland and San Diego. Two years later, Bakke-Purnell and the rest of the band played at Expo ‘86 in Vancouver and went on a cruise to Alaska.
She recalled her excitement at performing on a cruise ship.
“We played to the crowds in every port we stopped at. It was really neat.
“You couldn’t go anywhere in the ship without running into someone you know.”
It was her memories of camaraderie with other Royals that made Bakke-Purnell plan the weekend reunion that attracted 150 band alumni from as far as Calgary and Edmonton to Festival Hall on Saturday night for dinner, dancing and reminiscing. “We made so many good friendships. It was so much fun.”
Bakke-Purnell’s younger brother and sister also spent time as Royals members — her sister was part of the ‘95 tour to Australia — and experienced the same “withdrawal” that she did when they had to step down from the band. (The age cut-off was once 19 and is now 21).
Two decades after Bakke-Purnell reluctantly left the Royals, her son, Spencer Purnell, joined up. He plays the same instrument his mom did — the alto saxophone.-0
“The first year, my mom kind of pushed me into it. I didn’t want to do it. Now I find it really fun. I love it,” said 16-year-old Spencer.
The Grade 10 Hunting Hill High School student admitted he actually finds himself counting down the minutes to Royals practices after supper on Wednesday nights. “You’re sitting there after supper, watching the clock. You can hardly wait until it’s 6:30.”
While the furthest Spencer has travelled, so far, is Saskatchewan, he’s looking forward to heading to Ireland, Germany and The Netherlands to compete in a world band competition. Besides opening up his perspective, Spencer said joining the Royals has allowed him to make a whole new group of friends.
While some teenagers find the school experience isolating, Spencer said he’s never seen a Royal ever eat lunch by himself in a roomful of friendly faces. “No one sits alone.”
Rob Goring, who has directed the Royals for the past eight years, thinks it’s “wonderful” that Bakke-Purnell organized the first-ever reunion of the band that was started in 1969 as a city council initiative.
He believes the weekend event will help celebrate the history and heritage of the Red Deer Royals, which went through several directors over the years, including the late Keith Mann.
The Royals started out small and were initially known as the Red Deer Community Band. But the group stretched to more than 100 members just before the first international tour to England in 1976. While participation later dwindled in the 1980s, Bakke-Purnell said the Red Deer Royals are now bigger than ever, with 120 musicians and members of the colour guard, which spins flags and rifles. They recently won the top prize at the Calgary Stampede.
Part of the reunion celebration for those who could stay to Sunday afternoon was watching the critically-lauded Red Deer Royals play at the Festival of Champions at the Centrium. Various show bands each performed a 10-minute set and the afternoon culminated in a combined performance by 600 musicians.